Lawyer X findings published
Yesterday saw the publishing of the final report from the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants. Over the last 12 months, the Honourable Margaret McMurdo presided over more than 127 hearings and waded through many thousands of documents. If the outcome of the Commission had to be distilled into one sentence it would be – the end, in this instance securing criminal convictions, clearly, does not justify the means.
The scandal that gave rise to the Royal Commission was the shock revelation that criminal defence barrister, Nicola Gobbo, had been working as an informant with Victorian Police for between 1998 and 2013, whilst defending some of that state’s most high-profile accused criminals; often informing on her own clients and revealing confidential information, that would otherwise be subject to legal professional privilege.
It was foreshadowed that Ms Gobbo’s role as an informant with Victorian Police may have affected in excess of 1,000 criminal cases. Since the scandal came to light, many of those whose convictions may have been affected have already launched appeals. One has so far been successful and another walked free on bail. Victorian Police have been advised to make all reasonable attempts to contact 887 people whose cases may have been affected by Ms Gobbo’s conduct. These cases are a large portion of the 1,011 findings of guilty the Commission found was related to Gobbo’s role and an informer.
In delivering her findings, Royal Commissioner McMurdo said the actions of Ms Gobbo were “inexcusable… improper and duplicitous” and that she showed a “flippant disregard for her professional responsibilities” as a criminal defence barrister.
Ms McMurdo also noted the impact Ms Gobbo’s role as informant had on the legal system as a whole: “The ripple effects of this conduct will continue to emerge, and continue to be felt, over coming years”. In the years Gobbo acted as an informer, Ms McMurdo noted: “the magnitude and duration of her conduct” had corroded public confidence in the “legal processes at the heart of our democracy”.
Victorian police were not spared criticism, the final report noting: “Ms Gobbo could not inform on her clients without the assistance of the Victorian Police officers to whom she informed”.
“It is also important to acknowledge that the repercussions of Ms Gobbo’s conduct as a human source were not caused solely by what she did or failed to do, but also by the actions and inactions of Victoria Police officers, and by the institutional shortcomings within Victorian Police that allowed her improper and unethical conduct to commence, continue, escalate and flourish over many years”.
Whilst Ms Gobbo has been struck off the Roll of Legal Practitioners in October 2020, she remains on the role of retired barristers. The Royal Commission recommended Ms Gobbo be permanently expunged from the record of current and former barristers, noting her name remaining on the list has “symbolic significance” that had the “potential to undermine public confidence” in the bar.
In all, the Commission delivered 111 recommendations, the first of which was that Ms Gobbo’s conduct be referred to a special investigator to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to establish the commission of any criminal offences by her or the police.
There is little doubt Ms Gobbo’s actions have left an unpleasant stain on our profession, particularly on those involved in providing criminal defence services. “Her behaviour in concert with Victoria Police undermined the administration of justice, compromised criminal convictions, and damaged the standing of Victoria Police officers uninvolved in this debacle. It has shaken public trust and confidence in Victoria’s legal profession and criminal Justice system”, Ms McMurdo noted in her closing comments.
The final report from the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants can be found here: https://www.rcmpi.vic.gov.au/final-report